IS SXSW Being Opportunistic of Oblivious?

By Brian Taylor Goldstein

The following situation was recently brought to our attention and we felt obligated to comment:

Since this issue arose, the festival’s Managing Director has issued multiple “updates” and “clarifications” that are disingenuous or, at best, ill-informed.

First, he contends that the contract provision regarding non-work visa violations is merely “telling the acts what immigration (authorities) would do if terms of their visas are violated” and is intended “to inform foreign artists that the U.S. immigration authorities have mechanisms to create trouble for artists who ignore U.S. immigration laws.” However, if this is true, much of the legal information is misleading and inaccurate. Moreover, if SXSW is, indeed, merely trying to “inform” artists and “warn” them about potential immigration consequences, then why do SXSW organizers themselves threaten to notify U.S. immigration authorities if they discover any infractions? When did SXSW become agents of ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement)?

Second, he explains that “all of the harshest penalties threatened in the contract—including notifying immigration authorities—would only be invoked if somebody did something really horrific, like disobey rules about pyrotechnics, starting a brawl, or if they killed somebody” and that this language is “intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.” While any such actions on the part of an artist or group would most certainly warrant an immediate expulsion from SXSW, as well as untold liability issues, none of them constitute any kind of immigration violation which would warrant SXSW notifying immigration authorities—particularly when that would only result in all non-US artists at the festival coming under scrutiny of ICE.

Lastly, SXSW’s Managing Director claims that that these provisions have always been part of their agreements. Perhaps this is true. However, if that is the case, then not only were these contractual terms poorly and sloppily drafted. And given the current political madness, now was certainly the time to update and amend them.

While it’s easy to presume that SXSW is using the current immigration situation to coerce artists into not performing any unauthorized SXSW performances, it’s far more likely that they are one of many presenters, venues, and festivals who are only too eager to dispense expertise on issues they actually know nothing about. The complexities of immigration issues for non-US artists are confusing and frustrating enough without adding to the melee with misinformation, however well-intentioned, which only causes more confusion.


For additional information and resources on this and other legal, project management, and business issues for the performing arts, visit

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